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'Forced displacement today: a matter of humanity'

Speeches and statements

'Forced displacement today: a matter of humanity'

22 March 2019
Martini Lecture, Milan

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am deeply honoured to be with you today to recall the legacy of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini – a legacy that remains fundamental, and is particularly significant in view of the topic you have chosen for this first “Martini Lecture”: forced displacement, and more generally, movements of refugees and migrants and the broad public debate that they have provoked.

Cardinal Martini’s commitment to social justice, and to overcoming division through dialogue, has undeniably made a fundamental contribution to this debate, and has become a part of Milan’s contemporary identity. At a time when solidarity is viewed with suspicion and even mocked, and when difference is seen as a threat, his commitment reflects the deep-seated sense of humanity of the Milanese, as well as the richness and vitality that diversity brings to a city such as this one.

It is therefore a very great pleasure - for which I am extremely grateful - to deliver this lecture in Milan, the city that shaped my own upbringing, values and ideas, and one that has been at the forefront – often with exceptional courage – of the national and global conversation around migration, hospitality, refuge and integration.

Historically, Milan has always been a point of convergence between northern Europe and Italy, north and south – at the heart of a vast movement of people, ideas, cultures and trade. Like other global cities, it has thrived on its ability to welcome and integrate diverse groups of people: armies, dynasties and artisans, intellectuals and entrepreneurs. Today we have almost forgotten the extraordinary change brought to the city by post-war Italian migration, especially from the south - such change having become an integral and indispensable part of the city.

We should bear this in mind, however, as we are faced with a new flow of arrivals: refugees and migrants from beyond the Mediterranean. This movement is still unfolding, but is one that we must once again integrate into this city’s story of economic progress, social and technological innovation, art and culture – pursuing what I would call a “Martini objective”. Here, Lombardy’s strong sense of belonging and a rich civic identity must go hand in hand with a sense of openness and connection – to use a central concept in Cardinal Martini’s thinking – to a vibrant, interconnected world, defined not by nation states and rigid borders, but by our shared human history.

My lecture today focuses on the global refugee crisis or, more accurately speaking, the refugee crises in which people are driven from their homes by political upheaval, repression, conflict and violence.

In Italy and Europe today, the debate on refugees and migrants has unfortunately become bitterly divisive – a flashpoint around which concerns about globalisation are often manipulated for political gain. At this critical moment, Cardinal Martini’s message of dialogue and Milan’s tradition of solidarity, charity and social engagement, with its imprint both Catholic and secular, are more vitally relevant than ever.


Today, there is more and more talk of a refugee “crisis”. Undoubtedly, the number of people uprooted from their homes by conflict, violence and persecution is on the rise. The total number of people who have been forcibly displaced – both within their own countries and around the world – by war, violence, persecution and weak governance is approaching 70 million for the first time. Of these, around 25 million can be considered refugees in the true sense, having crossed a border, and sometimes several borders, seeking what we call international protection. This number has doubled compared to a few years ago. The consequences have reverberated globally, but the most profound and immediate impact has been in the developing world (where more than eight in ten refugees are hosted), and in those extremely fragile countries where conflicts result in the displacement of tens of millions of people within their borders.

Despite this, the prevailing perception is that the refugee “crisis” mainly affects rich countries. It is a perception fuelled by the political rhetoric of “invasion”, which continues to draw support, and rests on a complex system of cleverly manipulated fears and carefully cultivated prejudices, with devastating consequences, as we saw in New Zealand just a few days ago. The reality is quite different - and this is the first message I would like to convey today. It is in fragile countries torn by war and violence, in border communities, in the peripheries and often in the poorest areas of countries and regions neighbouring conflict zones that the refugee “crisis” is most acute and dramatic.

Take the situation in Bangladesh. In the last four months of 2017, more than 650,000 Rohingya people arrived across the border from Myanmar – traumatised, exhausted and desperate, fleeing a deeply brutal military operation in which thousands of their family members were killed, and their homes and villages destroyed.

A few weeks into the crisis, I visited Cox’s Bazar District – one of the poorest areas in Bangladesh. Thousands of refugees were living in improvised shelters along the sides of roads, forests and hills, mixed with their compatriots who had previously sought refuge in the region: almost a million people in one of the most geographically and economically disadvantaged areas in the country.

In the midst of that terrible, desperate misery, in the chaos of emergency, the local population had organized itself to help the refugees and a humanitarian operation had swung into action. Disorderly and improvised as this was, it proved to be effective and even indispensable in saving people in danger and in providing a little comfort; meanwhile, the government of Bangladesh kept its borders open throughout the crisis, ensuring a relatively safe refuge for the displaced and providing an initial emergency response.

The plight of the Rohingya people – uprooted from their homes by violence and persecution, after decades of exclusion, discrimination and repeated displacement – is a very stark example of today’s large-scale emergencies resulting in mass movements of refugees to countries with limited resources. And it forcefully conveys how the consequences of these crises are first and foremost felt in the global south. But it also illustrates a surprising phenomenon: often the local communities of those countries are the first to share their homes, land, food and water with those forced to flee. This is not mere rhetoric; I have seen it in many countries, not only in Bangladesh, but in hundreds of African villages, at the borders of war-torn countries such as Syria, in South American countries where millions of Venezuelans have fled from collapsing infrastructure, economy and institutions. And almost always, this response of solidarity does not become the object of political negotiations and media manipulation – as is unfortunately too often the case in Europe today – but rather, it spontaneously expresses the values of traditions, cultures and societies which, despite their differences, are all equally open to the concept of “asylum” in its most profound sense. In other words, it reflects a shared humanitarian imperative present in major cultural traditions and enshrined in international refugee law.

In Syria, eight years of deadly conflict have uprooted almost half of the pre-war population – including five million refugees in neighbouring countries, and a million more in Europe and beyond. For the vast majority of Syrian refugees in neighbouring host countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt – life remains a daily struggle, as it is also for the urban communities that host them under immense strain.

Again, the generosity and hospitality of these communities have been remarkable, as I was able to see once more in Lebanon only a few days ago. There, family and social ties and a strong tradition of local hospitality shaped by a diverse, multicultural history all play an important role. The challenges, of course, are many: Lebanon has a fractured history; its complex politics – both on a regional and local level – and the social, economic and political impact of the Syrian conflict next door are significant; and many refugees face hostility and discrimination. Even in Jordan, a country that over the past 70 years has received successive waves of Palestinian, Iraqi and now Syrian refugees, growing economic problems make that hospitality more difficult and controversial.

My third example is Colombia – a country trying to emerge from decades of conflict within its own borders, now struggling to cope with a massive influx of people from Venezuela that has gathered pace over the past months along the 2,000-kilometre border between the two countries. In those areas where peace is most fragile, local communities are sharing what little food and shelter they have with the new arrivals, most of whom arrive destitute and in despair. For example, I recall a community of Colombians near Cúcuta who were displaced within their own country by the long conflict between the government and armed groups. They explained to us how they had organized themselves to share their few resources with the Venezuelans crossing the border. With more than 3.4 million people now outside Venezuela, the impact of this crisis has reverberated across the entire region.

Look also at Ethiopia – a country that continues to host close to a million refugees from some neighbouring countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan and which, in the last few years, has become a powerful voice for the values of solidarity, refugee protection and inclusion. However, the price has been very high. One small district alone, Gambella, hosts more than 400,000 refugees, uprooted by the devastating conflict that has displaced more than a third of the population of South Sudan; this is more than the local population. In January, Ethiopia adopted a historic new refugee law, expanding refugee access to education, jobs and legal documentation. This was not uncontroversial; as in other parts of the world, the presence of refugees has given rise to complex political debates. But well-informed analysis and courageous political leadership are helping forge an innovative approach to refugee protection, setting an important example across the African continent and beyond. 

These four examples, from very different contexts, illustrate the profound impact of today’s displacement crises on the communities in countries with limited resources that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees with compassion and humanity.


The impact on those in exile is also extremely tough. Every day, around the world, millions of people are facing impossible choices. Put yourselves in their place. To return home to fragile and dangerous situations? To remain where they are, struggling on the margins of society, often without a secure legal status, in grinding poverty? Or to set out on a dangerous journey, risking their lives in an uncertain search for greater security, protection and a stable future? For some, the last option – to travel further away – may seem to be the only way forward, particularly in situations where international support to asylum countries is insufficient, or where refugee rights are restricted. The experiences of refugees making this choice often intersect with those of migrants, who have left their countries for other reasons.

It is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of these migrants travel through regular channels, their decisions shaped by migration policies and practices and by labour demand in destination countries. However, demographic imbalances and the economic gap between rich and poor countries, combined with increasingly inadequate migration management and the lack of regular migration channels, have resulted in a growing number of migrants embarking on journeys through irregular pathways, under harsh and desperate conditions. These routes are very often the same as those taken by refugees, who are fleeing not as a matter of personal choice, but because they are left with no other option. Thus, both refugees and irregular migrants are often exposed to the risk of being exploited and abused by those who have made these routes into a huge, networked international criminal business.

The phenomenon of ‘mixed’ flows is not new, but it is growing, and raises very complex challenges. The circumstances that drive these people to leave their own countries often overlap: weak governance, impoverishment, deep inequalities, environmental degradation, lack of resources, water scarcity, food insecurity and the impact of climate change are almost always part of the contexts in which conflict and violence take root.

And the grave, often fatal, risks to which refugees and migrants are exposed are very similar. Both groups may include particularly vulnerable people, such as unaccompanied and separated children, women victims of trafficking and violence, the elderly or the sick.

That said, my organization, UNHCR, believes that it is important to maintain the distinction between the two groups in order to better safeguard the specific rights of each. Refugees – regardless of where they are, or how they have travelled – also have a set of rights under international law, based on their inability to return home without placing their lives in danger. The management of international migration is regulated through a different set of arrangements, including those providing for the return of asylum seekers whose application has been rejected.

Addressing mixed population flows therefore calls for a coherent, yet differentiated, approach that ensures refugees are protected, while safeguarding the dignity and rights of all those on the move, and especially the most vulnerable. It is a complex, but feasible operation. Protecting refugees, and finding solutions for migrants, are fully compatible with good border management. This requires close cooperation between states – at both the regional and international level – given the inherently transnational nature of mixed flows.

It is precisely the inadequacy of this cooperation – especially in Europe – that has transformed a serious and complex, but essentially manageable, phenomenon into a “crisis”.

One of the foundational values of the identity of post-war Europe – especially of the European Union – is undoubtedly a commitment to being a continent of hospitality and refuge. In the decades following the Second World War, Europe developed a solid and relatively effective asylum system. Displacement caused by the wars in the Balkans during the 1990s put the reception system to the test, but by cooperating and complying with basic principles, European States were able to manage that crisis.

A number of factors changed the scenario in the following years: mixed flows, especially from Africa, of which I have spoken; the growth of human trafficking; the global financial and economic crisis; the evolution of terrorism; and finally, the war in Syria, causing mass displacement of people towards the gates of Europe. The international system soon proved unable to resolve the Syrian conflict; millions of Syrian nationals quickly understood that the war would last for a long time, and millions of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries realized that aid would be limited and insufficient, especially in important areas such as education and employment. Traffickers smelled a deal, and between 2015 and 2016 hundreds of thousands of people from Syria and its neighbouring countries, but also from a vast swathe of other countries of origin, set out on journeys towards Europe. The European reception system did not hold up. Unscrupulous politicians spoke of “invasion”, others – with rare exceptions – were afraid to follow Chancellor Angela Merkel in her courageous attempt to promote a better-organised approach, based on solidarity. Intra-European cooperation collapsed.

The impression of chaos that resulted has been enormously destructive, giving way to complex and widespread fears and prejudices that up to that point had remained relatively latent in European societies, but which now played into the hands of those who realized that by stigmatizing refugees and migrants, they could gain votes and build up political consensus.

The concerns that have been exploited through this skilful global manipulation should not, of course, be underestimated. They are real and justified. Millions of people – especially in industrialised countries – feel left behind by globalisation, frustrated by the economic insecurity and growing inequality they see around them. Those governing in recent decades – political, economic and cultural leaders – did not understand or respond in time. Frustrations exploded, especially with the financial crisis of 2008. The arrival in Europe of large numbers of refugees and migrants in the following years, especially in 2015, became the perfect scapegoat for all those frustrations and fears.

The result, both in Europe and in Italy, is a society that has become more fragmented and divided than at any time since the post-war period. Refugees and migrants have become one of the flashpoints around which fear and uncertainty have converged, stirred up by irresponsible politicians – perhaps the most difficult, most serious and most debated flashpoint. In this context, narratives of rejection and exclusion have often prevailed. It is a manifestly unfounded solution and does not solve anything, but it offers the advantage of simplicity in addressing issues that, on the contrary, call for complex responses. And, therefore, it creates consensus.

The reality is clearly different. First of all, the notion of “crisis” must be dispelled. It is hard to say, but it needs to be said: there is no migration “crisis” in Europe! The number of people arriving on Europe’s shores across the Mediterranean has dropped to the lowest level in five years. The responsibility for responding to refugee and migrant arrivals has however fallen disproportionately on a small number of states, dictated largely by geography: Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain. Today’s crisis in Europe is not one of numbers, but of solidarity.

What is of concern, however, is that the rate of deaths at sea has soared alongside restrictions on rescue efforts, especially by NGOs. In 2018, six people died every day on the Mediterranean – an indelible shame for our continent. Rescue at sea and the right to seek asylum in Europe must be preserved. In the case of recent arrivals, arrangements were reached for the relocation of those on board to other European States. This is encouraging, but we cannot go on negotiating disembarkation on an ad hoc basis, every time a vessel approaches European shores.

Together with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), UNHCR has put forward a number of proposals to the European Union for practical, achievable and predictable measures for States to share responsibility for refugees and migrants disembarked on Europe’s shores. They call for improvements to reception arrangements, support for the vulnerable, swift and efficient registration and screening processes, and efficient adjudication of asylum claims. The aim is to ensure that people in need of international protection are swiftly identified and receive the support they need, and that irregular migrants who do not have a legal basis to stay are treated humanely and with compassion.

Migration flows towards Europe (and in other parts of the world, for example from Central America towards the United States) must however be considered and managed from a broader perspective. The “downstream” solution, so to speak, is to reform the European asylum system as a matter of urgency – as the Dublin mechanism is clearly no longer adequate to meet the current situation. But “upstream”, the response must become more farsighted and strategic. People pass through a series of countries in order to reach Europe. Of these countries of transit, the most problematic is undoubtedly Libya, which is lacerated by a complex conflict. There, a population of refugees and migrants is living in extremely difficult circumstances – many in detention centres, which are among the most dreadful places I have seen in my long humanitarian career.

The Libyan conflict is extremely complex. It is clear, however, that over the past two or three years Europe, and also Italy, have given priority mainly to the issue of disembarkation, choosing to reinforce the action of the Libyan coast guard to reduce sea crossings; today 85% of those who try to leave Libya on illegal vessels are intercepted and brought back to the coast. And since the conflict persists, and no other Libyan institution functions as well as the coast guard, the fate of those brought back to Libya is to be exposed once again to abuse, exploitation, torture and violence.

UNHCR and IOM are present in Libya. For over a year we have multiplied our efforts to help – as far as possible – thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in the country, through humanitarian aid (in places we can reach), negotiations with authorities and armed groups to remove people from the detention centres we can access, voluntary repatriation of migrants who decide to return home, and evacuation to third countries for refugees who are unable to return home. These are huge, expensive efforts undertaken in conditions of grave and constant danger, criticism from those who would like us to do more, stigmatisation by those who claim that we endorse an exploitative system, and opposition by the armed militias that control a large part of Libya and benefit economically from human trafficking. Yet, they are necessary, and we will continue to sustain them. Over 37,000 migrants have returned to their home countries thanks to IOM. Through the UNHCR emergency evacuation programme, over 3,000 vulnerable refugees have been taken directly to Europe – mainly to Italy – or to Niger, from where they are resettled in third countries.

Certainly, these are drops in the ocean in the face of such a grave and massive problem, the real extent of which nobody knows. And it is important that nobody instrumentalises our presence in Libya to exempt Europe from receiving those who reach the continent, and from cooperating strategically to urgently seek a political solution to the Libyan conflict.

We also need to look beyond Libya, however, even further “upstream”. Europe invests a great deal of resources in humanitarian operations and economic development in Africa and the Middle East. It is clear, however, that these resources are not strategically allocated, and that they are insufficient to address the root causes of irregular migration flows, especially poverty and climate-related issues, or to contribute to a more coherent and concerted search for political solutions to the conflicts causing displacement. Likewise, it is necessary to allocate more longer-term aid to support those countries hosting – as I have said – the vast majority of refugees, to prevent them from setting out on dangerous and often unnecessary journeys. Our operations in the major African countries of asylum, for example, are still among the most difficult to fund. The argument frequently put forward by donor countries - that the aid allocated so far has been substantial, and has reached the limit - is not only questionable; it is also strategically wrong. Without greater sharing of resources, inequalities between countries and societies will increase, making population movements ever more difficult to manage.

Resettlement programmes should also be expanded. In October 2017, I called for 40,000 resettlement places for the 15 asylum or transit countries along the Central and Western Mediterranean routes. UNHCR has now received more than 39,000 places, including some 14,000 pledged by European Union countries. So it is possible, but it should not happen only when an increase in arrivals put us under greater strain. It is an effort that must be sustained, as an important safety mechanism especially for the most vulnerable refugees, for whom safeguards in many of the states neighbouring conflict zones are not sufficient.


I have spoken about the crises, the real ones. I have tried to explain our view about what should be done to address the phenomena of migration flows. I do not deny that it is a difficult context. Perhaps it is the first time, in the history of my organization, stretching over almost seventy years, that we have been faced with such complex challenges, especially in the political sphere.

Before ending my lecture, I would like to share some broader thoughts, on the resilience of solidarity, and on how to transpose it to the institutional level to make it more universal and effective.

The conviction still persists that protecting the persecuted and sheltering the uprooted are part of the moral foundations of our societies - calling for effective, humane action and cooperation.

In recent years, in the midst of the uproar of a certain hostile political discourse, we all have seen powerful examples of solidarity in many countries, including Italy – from civil society, associations, faith leaders, business people and schools, to prominent figures in sports and the arts. Countless people – certainly more than we know of – have contributed to receiving and helping refugees integrate in their communities. And perhaps even more importantly, underlying this solidarity is the understanding that refugees and migrants are also, and above all, people who make important contributions to our society, provided that their integration (a topic that would deserve a separate discussion, but which is of course fundamental) is promoted and sustained, as a “heaven-sent opportunity” for enrichment through diversity, to quote Cardinal Martini.

There are many examples.

The community of Torre Melissa in Calabria courageously pulling a group of 50 shipwrecked refugees and migrants out of the sea after their boat capsized in January.

The thousands of people who have stepped forward to become voluntary guardians for unaccompanied and separated children.

The dozens of families that have opened up their homes to refugees through the programme Refugees Welcome Italia.

The high-school children all over the country who take four hours out of their week to volunteer at local Italian language schools for refugees.

The growing number of Italian businesses that are employing refugees and supporting their integration into Italian society, striving to prevent and combat xenophobia and racism.

And all the cities that have been at the forefront of organized solidarity, innovating new ways of receiving refugees, as part of a strong but open civic identity; bringing to bear their practical experience of delivering services; addressing vulnerability; bringing together different actors from across the urban community.

Research published late last year tells us that more than seven in 10 Italians support the principle of asylum and believe people should be able to take refuge in other countries, including Italy. The values of hospitality, welcome and caring for the vulnerable are a fundamental part of Italian civic identity, even amongst those who are concerned about the impact of migration.

Italy has always been a country grounded in solidarity.

At the same time, though – I will not tire of repeating this – it is essential that confidence in asylum and migration systems is restored, through better and more efficient management of reception and cooperation with other European governments. Restricting access to support, and taking away humanitarian protection, will not solve problems; this can only complicate matters, as people are cast out from support facilities, and forced them to live on the margins of our societies, where the risks are greater for everybody.

On the one hand, therefore, civil society and local institutions play a very important role in upholding and defending the values of hospitality and solidarity; on the other hand, we are witnessing a breakdown of trust in the system that manages increasingly complex flows.

It is a situation which, with some variations, we have seen occurring in many European countries and also elsewhere in the world.

For these reasons, in 2016, a year after a wave of refugees and migrants had arrived in Europe, States gathered in New York to decide on how to address these phenomena.

Those consultations found expression in two global “compacts”– one on refugees and the other on migration – endorsed by a UN General Assembly Resolution and both adopted by the United Nations last December. Much has been said about these compacts, sometimes appropriately, sometimes mistakenly.

The Global Compact on Refugees reaffirms the 1951 Refugee Convention as a fundamental instrument of refugee protection; it is a document that reflects universal and shared values and, at the same time, it is a pragmatic, practical means for addressing refugee flows in a way that reflects the interests both of refugees, and of the governments and people receiving them. The Global Compact is not legally binding, but it establishes and explores a series of measures mainly designed to support the governments hosting the largest number of refugees to develop more inclusive and progressive refugee policies. It is grounded in the principle that all countries, not just those neighbouring crisis zones, are responsible for refugees. It also establishes a series of arrangements to translate the principle of shared responsibility for refugees into practical mechanisms, each country according to its means and capacity.

The Global Compact envisages that the response to refugee crises should go beyond the traditional mechanisms of humanitarian assistance provided by some States through the UN system and by a limited number of NGOs. It promotes a broader approach envisaging a key role for organizations operating in the field of social and economic development, such as the World Bank; the private sector; local institutions; and civil society in all its components, including academics. We have begun to test this approach in 15 countries in Africa and Latin America, and the results have been encouraging. In this sense, the Global Compact aims to bring together the spontaneous solidarity of civil society with the organized solidarity of States, rebuilding trust around such a complex matter. Responding to refugee crises is within our reach; finding solutions is possible.

The Global Compact on Refugees was developed alongside a separate Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. As can be inferred from what I said earlier, in a world of increasingly “mixed” flows the two global compacts are separate, but complementary instruments. For this reason, while I welcome that Italy endorsed and gave strong support to the Compact on Refugees, I regret that it did not subscribe to the Compact on Migration. This, in my view, was a mistake. Few countries more than Italy could benefit from strengthening international cooperation in this field.


I would like to end my lecture by returning to Milan and to Cardinal Martini.

Population movements, the management of migration flows, hospitality and integration are extremely complex and difficult issues. I have tried to explore some aspects, emphasizing that it is not impossible to tackle and even to resolve them. I hope I have explained that, in order to do so, we need to combine strong values such as solidarity, openness to dialogue – in other words humanity – with concrete, well-organized measures, resulting from international cooperation.

When I left Milan more than thirty years ago to go and volunteer in refugee camps at the border between Thailand and Cambodia, Carlo Maria Martini was the city’s Archbishop. Even then, the positions he took were an inspiration to those of us looking for broader horizons and seeking dialogue with other cultures. They were strong positions, but which always, in his clear language, combined the ideal with the practical. In pursuing this dial course (so typically Milanese!) Cardinal Martini was enlightening us, in the broader framework of his pastoral and spiritual teaching.

On 6 December thirty years ago, on the eve of the feast of St Ambrose – Milan’s patron saint – Cardinal Martini gave an important speech. Those were days filled with trepidation and hope. The Iron Curtain that had divided Europe into two separate areas for decades was collapsing. And the Archbishop urged Milan to be “a place of welcome and a sign of unity”, quoting a passage from Saint Ambrose’s book “On duties”:

“They who would forbid the city to strangers cannot have our approval. That would mean driving them away at the very time when we should offer help. Beasts do not drive out beasts, yet man would turn away man? We would not let a dog go hungry while we eat, and yet, we would drive away man?”

I need say no more.